Curb your dependence on dependent clauses

A continuation of last week’s jihad against inflated sentences

In an effort to create a debate on a significant grammatical issue that appears to bedevil many newspaper writers, I would like to undertake a discussion of overwritten dependent clauses.

We’ve all been forced to wade through leads like that, in which the writer–determined to simultaneously proclaim the news and put it into perspective–creates one big fat impenetrable sentence. The previous paragraph, for example, was a sentence in which 19 of the 31 words–59%–consisted of the dependent clause.

Curb your dependence on dependent clauses

Curb your dependence on dependent clauses

Newspapers, like parking lots, do not have a lot of rules that work consistently, and dependent clauses are no exception. But we clearly publish too many that put too much weight on the remainder of the sentence and crush its meaning.

Consider this a continuation of last week’s discussion about how to cut down sentence length for greater clarity. The pledge I want you to make this week is: Stop using dependent clauses that have the effect of overloading your writing. Instead, favor a more disciplined, leaner style that concentrates on moving the reader from one reasoned, shorter sentence to the next.

The biggest reason you keep seeing monster dependent clauses choking off sentence logic is the writer’s (or his editor’s) insecurity: Rather than wait until the second or third paragraph to explain perspective, the writer fears you’ll abandon him unless he shoves it down your throat right now. Think about it: If you don’t trust the reader to follow a straight-forward, one- or two-sentence lead to the second or third paragraph, you’ve got bigger problems.

Evaluate your own habits and standards as you read these examples. The length of the dependent clause increases with each one.

11 words, 34% of the sentence: Here’s an acceptable and necessary use of a dependent clause. The contrast between the information in the dependent clause and the independent clause is a moral hub of the investigation:

At a time when improving America’s schools is a government priority, Congress has increasingly been raiding the money set aside for education reform to pay for pet projects, records and interviews show.

In the current federal budget, lawmakers have dipped into national education money to finance perks for their home districts, honor retired colleagues and help well-connected constituents.

Congress ”went hog wild” bestowing such benefits, said…

13 words, 31% of the sentence: The ratio is acceptable but it makes too long a sentence. More importantly, how genuinely important is the contrast the writer tries to illustrate? He doesn’t immediately return to it, so why jam it so high?

Even as they searched for a speedy, bipartisan resolution to the impeachment crisis, senators from both parties urged President Clinton on Sunday to postpone his Jan. 19 State of the Union address because the Senate may be debating whether to remove him from office.

The extraordinary suggestion, made by several participants in televised talk shows, signals a growing recognition that the impeachment trial will inevitably slow, if not stop, Washington from conducting the public’s routine business. In his annual State of the Union address, which is delivered to a joint session of Congress, the president traditionally….

Now go back and draw a line through the dependent clause and read the lead without it. See what you think.

19 words, 42% of the sentence: The story stacks a dependent clause on top of an already long independent clause, draining the meaning out of both halves:

Attempting to duplicate last year’s legislation that required any San Fernando Valley secession effort to go before voters citywide, a state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would require a districtwide vote for any effort to carve up the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The bill–to be carried by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) at the request of the teachers’ union–would significantly hamper the efforts of San Fernando Valley groups trying to break away from the giant LAUSD.

Cardenas said his proposal ”would apply…

The lesson here is that you have to choose between news and perspective when the perspective is complex. Let’s just make it the new third graph (underlined):

A state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would require a districtwide vote for any effort to carve up the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The bill–to be carried by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) at the request of the teachers union–would significantly hamper the efforts of San Fernando Valley groups trying to break away from the giant LAUSD.

The bill echoes legislation passed last year in which lawmakers required a citywide vote in order for the San Fernando Valley to seceed from the City of Los Angeles.

Cardenas said his proposal ”would apply…

20 words, 54% of the sentence: This story succeeds in cramming the two key developments into one sentence. But it’s confusing when you hit the word “his” before you figure out who the protagonist is:

Minutes after filing a federal civil-rights complaint demanding a review of the fatal police shooting of his 19-year-old cousin, a Riverside pastor Monday implored several hundred protesters to seek justice peacefully.

The boisterous, incident-free rally was led by local ministers and community activists–including members of the victim’s family. Some of the placards waved by protesters read ”Murdered by the Riverside Police,” ”Guns don’t kill, Cops do,” and ”Help! 911 Killed Me.”

”We’re not seeking the path of violence,” shouted the Rev. DeWayne Butler, a cousin and father-figure of the victim, Tyisha Miler.

It would be clearer (albeit still long-winded) to say:

A Riverside pastor on Monday filed a federal civil-rights complaint demanding a review of the fatal police shooting of his 19-year-old cousin, then implored several hundred protesters to seek justice peacefully.

The boisterous, incident-free rally…

22 words, 54% of the sentence: In this story the technology is esoteric, so the factors that have propelled its rise should have taken second place to the rise itself. The story tried to have it both ways:

Propelled by the introduction of broadcast digital television in the top U.S. markets last fall and the coming of digital cable systems, interactive TV is poised to move from regional experiments into living rooms across the nation this year.

Products and services that allow consumers to personalize their TV experience will provide much of the buzz at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. CES will see a raft of announcements by software and hardware suppliers racing to form partnerships and release interactive-TV products.

Interactive-TV services allow viewers to use their remote controls or wireless keyboards to get more information during a broadcast or to treat their TVs somewhat like a substitute computer monitor to get e-mail and surf the Web. For example, a viewer might be able to get profiles of players while watching a soccer match by pressing a button on the remote.

Set to debut this year are TVs with software built in that allow viewers to interact with….

Suggestion: Lower the perspective. Make it the fourth paragraph (shown underlined) or, if you think the perspective is more important than the definition, the third:

Interactive TV is poised to move from regional experiments into living rooms across the nation this year.

Products and services that allow consumers to personalize their TV experience will provide much of the buzz at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. CES will see a raft of announcements by software and hardware suppliers racing to form partnerships and release interactive-TV products.

Interactive-TV services allow viewers to use their remote controls or wireless keyboards to get more information during a broadcast or to treat their TVs somewhat like a substitute computer monitor to get e-mail and surf the Web. For example, a viewer might be able to get profiles of players while watching a soccer match by pressing a button on the remote.

The technology’s popularity has been propelled by the introduction of broadcast digital television in the top U.S. markets last fall and the coming of digital cable systems.

Set to debut this year are TVs with software built in that allow viewers to interact with…

RECOMMENDED READING: None. If your newsroom is like mine you’re gonna be too busy moving pre-packaged stories to fill the Thursday-through-Monday gap. This is one of journalism’s great, unspoken trade-offs: We’ll give you the Fourth of July off but you’ll work yourselves to death in the days leading up to it.

Make sure to tune in next Monday, when we’ll offer you the six questions you need to ask yourself every time you consider writing an anecdotal lead.